• Where—Nottingham, England, UK
• Education—B.A., Cambridge University; post
graduate studies, University of Sheffield
• Awards—Costa Book Award; Ondaatje Prize
• Currently—lives in London, England
Edmund Arthur Lowndes de Waal OBE is a British ceramic artist, and author of The Hare with Amber Eyes (2010). He has worked as a curator, lecturer, art critic and art historian and is a Professor of Ceramics at the University of Westminster, He has received several awards and honours for his work.
De Waal was born in Nottingham, England, the son of Rev. Dr Victor de Waal, later Dean of Canterbury Cathedral. His grandfather was Hendrik de Waal, a Dutch businessman who moved to England and from whom he got his distinctly Dutch family name. His grandmother Elisabeth was a member of the Ephrussi family, whose history he would chronicle in The Hare with Amber Eyes.
De Waal made his first pot at the age of five after persuading his father to take him to a ceramics evening class. He was educated at The King's School, Canterbury, where he was taught pottery by the potter Geoffrey Whiting, a disciple of Bernard Leach. Aged 17, de Waal obtained a place at Cambridge University and deferred entry to take up a two-year apprenticeship with Whiting. During the apprenticeship he repetitively made hundreds of pots, such as casseroles and honey pots, telling BBC radio interviewer John Tusa, "It’s a bit like doing scales as well—you’d never be surprised by a musician spending five years doing arpeggios, and there is a sense in a ceramic apprenticeship that that’s really what you’re doing."
In 1983, de Waal took up his place at Trinity Hall, Cambridge to read English, being awarded a scholarship in 1985 and graduating in 1986 with first class honours.
Following graduation de Waal followed the path he had decided upon before going up to Cambridge: to make inexpensive domestic pots with good earth colours. He moved to the Welsh borders where he built a kiln and set up a pottery making functional stoneware pots in the Leach tradition, but the enterprise was not successful. He moved to inner-city Sheffield and started to work with porcelain, describing it as “the great taboo material; it doesn't do any of the 'proper' work of a pot. In using it I was trying to find a way out."
In 1991 he obtained a Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation Scholarship, under which he spent a year obtaining a post-graduate diploma in Japanese language at Sheffield University and then another year continuing his study of the language in Japan. While in Japan he also worked on a monograph of Bernard Leach, researching Leach’s papers and journals in the archive room of the Japanese Folk Crafts Museum, and continued to make pots, porcelain jars with the pushed-in, gestural sides that were to epitomise his style.
On returning to Britain in 1993, de Waal began living in London and made his distinctive ceramics, porcelain with a celadon glaze. Their shapes were essentially classical but with indentations or pinches and subtle variations in tone and texture. The pots became very fashionable, and in 1995 he had his first of many solo exhibitions.
De Waal's book on Bernard Leach was published in 1998. He described it as "the first 'de-mystifying' study of Leach."
The great myth of Leach is that Leach is the great interlocutor for Japan and the East, the person who understood the East, who explained it to us all, brought out the mystery of the East. But in fact the people he was spending time with, and talking to, were very few, highly educated, often Western educated Japanese people, who in themselves had no particular contact with rural, unlettered Japan of peasant craftsman.
He noted that Leach did not speak Japanese and had looked at only a narrow range of Japanese ceramics. These opinions attracted criticism from some of Leach's followers.
His work remained broadly within the Anglo-Oriental tradition but he also studied the modernists, and the Bauhaus movement in particular. In visits to gothic cathedrals as a child de Waal had attended to small spaces within large buildings. While at university he began to consider how his work might help to re-order the interior space of the museums and art galleries he visited.
In his current work he has moved away from making single objects to the production of groups of objects to be viewed in relation to openings and spaces. Most of his work consists of cylindrical porcelain pots with pale celadon glazes. He believes that the East and West may meet in porcelain; for example, that there the ethos of China's medieval Sung Dynasty may encounter the modernist ethos of the Bauhaus.
His family memoir The Hare with Amber Eyes: a Hidden Inheritance was published in 2010. In it he tells the story of his relatives, the once wealthy Ephrussi family, through the history of a collection of Japanese netsuke sculptures that are handed down through the generations. As he notes in the book, the collection ended up back in Japan, through de Waall's great-uncle Ignace "Iggie" Ephrussi, who settled in Tokyo in 1947 and towards whom de Waall felt great affection. The book received critical acclaim including the Costa Book Award (Biography 2010) and Ondaatje Prize (2011).
De Waal, who has made installations for Chatsworth, Kettle's Yard, Tate Britain and the Victoria and Albert Museum, works and lives in West Norwood, south London. He is represented by the Alan Cristea Gallery, London and the New Art Centre, Wiltshire. He was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2011 Birthday Honours for services to art.
In October 2011, de Waal was asked to choose and describe music that inspires him in his work. Speaking about music he described how...
you can get yourself into the loops of music... I did a huge porcelain wall—500 porcelain vessels—and there are rhythms in that wall that completely come out of baroque music. More recently there’s installations where things are in very minimalist, black lead-lined boxes, 12 of them in a row with the same number of vessels in each but they're arranged in different ways. That’s the porcelain equivalent of Steve Reich's systems music! It’s the same notes and the same tones repeated and just slightly different each time and it only makes sense if you’ve got all of it. One of them by itself is just a black box with a few pots in it.
The playlist includes Keith Jarrett, Johann Sebastian Bach, John Adams and Franz Schubert. (Author bio from Wikipedia.)
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